Teaching Residencies: Redesigning Field Placements/Student Teaching

As mentioned earlier, current imperatives for teacher education reform in the U.S. uniformly call for “clinically rich” teacher preparation that is deeply embedded in schools and classroom experiences (NCATE 2010; New York State Department of Education 2011; USDOE 2009, 2011). Inherent in exhortations to “place practice at the center of teaching preparation” (NCATE 2010, pp. 2-3) such that programs are “deeply, clinically-based with academic coursework informing and supplementing field experience” (USDOE 2011, p. 20), is the assumption that more practice in K-12 classrooms will improve the quality of teachers. Moreover, the student teaching or fieldwork component of any teacher preparation program is almost unanimously perceived by new teachers to be the most useful component of their preparation (Cochran-Smith and Zeichner 2005; Feiman-Nemser and Buchmann 1985; Holste and Matthews 1993; Johnson and Birkeland 2003). This perception further fuels the notion that increasing the amount of field experience will enhance new teachers’ knowledge and skill.

These calls shift the fulcrum of teacher preparation from the university to P-12 schools and from education professors to school-based practitioners, primarily classroom teachers. While there is little evidence that more time in classrooms ensures better prepared, higher quality teachers, there is generally a noticeable move by university-based teacher preparation programs in the U.S. to increase the amount of time their teacher candidates spend in the field. One response to this call for a change in the balance between university coursework and school-based immersion is teaching residencies.

What are Teaching Residencies? Teaching Residency programs have actually been around for over a decade, but until six or so years ago, there were only a handful of them in the U.S. That changed with the Obama administration when significant funding was made available for residency programs. Teaching residencies are analogous to medical residencies—i.e., they are founded on the basic principle that long-term immersion in authentic settings that provide the opportunity to apprentice with and learn from seasoned practitioners is the most rich, meaningful, and powerful way to learn about the realities of professional practice and to be best prepared to enter the field. Thus, central to any teaching residency is, as the name implies, being resident in a school. In most cases, the residency experience is a full- or close to full-time experience that follows the school calendar. Beyond this key characteristic, teaching residency programs share several features in common:

  • • An apprenticeship model whereby residents typically work alongside and learn from a mentor teacher[1];
  • • Partnerships that can involve any combination of school districts and public schools, universities, private schools, charter schools,[2] non-profit organizations, cultural institutions, and philanthropic organizations;
  • • Residency programs are typically graduate level programs that lead to Master’s degrees, and are structured such that residents are simultaneously engaged in teaching and university coursework;
  • • A focus on high need schools serving primarily students labeled “disadvantaged”; in fact, most residencies are located in large cities or areas defined as “urban” and the acronym UTR or Urban Teacher Residency has become a very commonly applied term/label;
  • • A focus on preparing teachers in specific shortage areas such as science or mathematics.

This is not to suggest that the implementation and design of residencies is standard, and many different iterations of this innovation are evident.

Benefits, Challenges, and Contextual Considerations. The primary benefit afforded by residency programs is the opportunity for preservice teachers to experience firsthand what it means to be a teacher in a particular context under the guidance of a teacher in that setting. Thus, the immersion is not a ‘sink or swim’ experience, but a ‘swimming with a personal coach’ experience. As a consequence, residents not only gain much practical experience, but the experience that they undergo is (intended to be) well-rounded and includes the many different aspects of a teacher’s role (teaching, working with parents, collaborating with peers, curriculum development, assessment, etc.), the many different facets of school life (after school programs, professional development, staff meetings, open houses, etc.), as well as interactions with the many different people and roles that make up a school community (paraprofessionals, special subject teachers, administrators, parents, etc.). Residents become members of a community and are seen as ‘real’ teachers rather than transient visitors. Being resident in a school also means the opportunity to see things through—take lessons and curriculum from start to finish, watch students grow and develop over time, stay with projects to their conclusion, engage in follow through, witness and learn from daily transitions—between classes, between days, between grades, and so on.

But residency programs are not without their problems. Given their emphasis on challenging, high need, urban schools, finding educative and supportive placements is not easy. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that most programs focus on shortage areas/subjects, which translates into a parallel shortage of qualified, experienced mentor teachers. Even when there are experienced mentors available, often they have either had no or limited experience serving as mentors to new teachers because challenging schools are often not sites in demand for student teaching; or alternatively, the mentoring experience they do have does not prepare them for the residency experience which is very different from “regular” student teaching. In addition, even in the best of situations, the extended placement in one setting means that residents in essence “learn” that one school. There is seldom time for exposure to different settings or schools; residents become very adept at operating within one school environment and culture, but find that this familiarity and ease do not necessarily mean that they can transition easily to a different culture, such as when they begin their first teaching position.

There are contextual issues that affect the implementation and success of UTRs. In the U.S., teachers work under increasing conditions of surveillance and compliance associated with high stakes testing and ever more stringent teacher accountability mandates. Teachers are under tremendous pressure to focus narrowly on increasing test scores because their very livelihoods depend on their students scoring well. Unsurprisingly, mentor teachers in high need schools that typically have not demonstrated strong test performance are often reluctant to hand over their classroom to fledgling teachers who will make mistakes on students. The narrowing of the curriculum because of test pressure also leaves less room for experimentation or for subjects that are not tested. It also means that efficiency and expediency may be favored over deep or gradual learning on the part of student teachers—mentor teachers focus on the technical versus the conceptual in their work with residents (Goodwin et al. 2016). Finally, residencies are often perceived to be expensive because residents are provided a fairly substantial living stipend as an incentive to participate. While data indicate that retention among residents is higher than teachers prepared via other routes, and teacher turnover costs literally millions each year,[3] during a time when teachers have been laid off and school district budgets have been severely slashed, the upfront costs of residency programs can appear prohibitive.

  • [1] There are, however, some programs that require applicants to secure a full-time teaching positionin a partner school in order to be considered. In these cases, residents hold full responsibility as theteacher of record.
  • [2] For some basic information about charter schools, see the National Education Association’swebsite http://www.nea.org/home/16332.htm.
  • [3] The cost of attrition among first-year teachers in NYC alone has been estimated at 21 million(UFT 2013).
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